Reactive vs. Proactive Security: Which Holds In a Threatening Future?

Feb 2, 2023
Kenna Security

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Cybercriminals are upping the ante. 

A new era of cyberwarfare began when Russia launched devastating attacks on Ukraine in the beginning of 2022, and hackers everywhere took advantage of the ensuing disruption. Gartner’s predictions for the next few years are just as sobering. By 2025, cyberattackers are predicted to have weaponized operational technology to harm—or even kill–humans. 

As morbid as the industry is becoming, cybercrime remains a booming business. Between January 2020 and June 2023, analysts monitoring the dark web discovered job postings from cybercriminal and nation-state hacking groups offering developers over $20,000 a month. It’s no wonder the offers are so generous, with damage from cyberattacks expected to reach about $10.5 trillion annually by 2025.

Today’s vulnerable cyberworld and the threatening future predicted ahead may make you want to pull the covers up and go back to sleep, but there’s work to be done. Keeping valuable assets secure today and through the future is a top priority for businesses facing evolving threats. 

When it comes to making choices about how to approach these threats, security professionals have their choice between reactive and proactive strategies. We’ll break down for you the defining points of each approach, how reactive and proactive teams handle breaches, and the strengths and weaknesses that underscore which approach keeps businesses one critical step ahead.

What is reactive security?

Reactive security teams focus efforts on monitoring and responding to known threats to an organization’s environment, such as phishing, malware, or password attacks. In the event of an attack, a reactive security team executes a response plan to defend against and repel the attacker. Once the incident is mitigated, the team assesses and repairs the damage. Here’s what the life cycle of a breach looks like in the hands of a reactive team:

Reactive teams before a breach

  • Monitor for anomalies
  • Load devices with anti-malware applications, antivirus programs, firewalls, and threat-monitoring programs
  • Evaluate systems for existing vulnerabilities
  • Create a disaster recovery plan

Reactive teams after a breach

  • Detect suspicious activity and alert administrators
  • Contain the threat
  • Identify the attack vector
  • Repair or restore damages
  • Investigate incident
  • Utilize data to avoid similar attacks

While this traditional strategy has been the industry standard for years, it’s become outdated as threats move too quickly to rely on response alone. That’s because a reactive strategy:

  • Manages crisis. Teams prioritize evaluating an IT environment’s suspicious activity, investigating previous and existing incidents, and preparing disaster recovery plans for the next breach. The focus is on detecting malicious activity, containing threats, identifying attack vectors, recovering, and fortifying for similar attacks in the future. All these, of course, are necessary. But managing and analyzing past crises doesn’t accommodate the new attack methods cybercriminals will deploy. It’s like trying to drive down a busy street while looking only in the rearview mirror.
  • Reacts to events. Three out of four exploited CVEs are weaponized within a month of publication and the majority of hackers need only five hours or less to break into an organization’s environment. With the stakes high and time ticking away, reactive teams will always be playing whack-a-mole trying to remediate attackers after they’ve already breached your systems. Just as disruptive are false positives and other noise from some security systems. Analysts can’t afford to spend a quarter of their time chasing false positives in today’s threat landscape where incidents are happening real-time. 
  • Lacks context. Reactive security teams assess an organization’s systems for security weaknesses. This measure is considered reactive because it only uncovers known vulnerabilities rather than new ones. As new vulnerabilities and threat data are constantly emerging and changing in nature, resilience becomes elusive without real-world threat and vulnerability intelligence. 

What is proactive security?

A proactive strategy prevents cyberattacks from happening in the first place. Instead of waiting for an attack to occur, a proactive stance builds security resilience around an organization’s environment. Building proactive security starts with educating employees about healthy cyber hygiene practices and keeping up-to-date with the most efficient risk management strategies. 

No matter how prepared your team is, attacks aren’t a hundred percent preventable. And that’s why the most efficient security strategy also utilizes reactive measures—reactive measures seen through a proactive lens. These measures often include penetration testing (hiring an ethical hacker to test a system’s security) and adopting new intrusion prevention technologies and machine learning capabilities that provide organizations with methods of mitigating threats before a compromise. 

Here’s how proactive teams operate before and after an inevitable breach:

Proactive teams before a breach:

  • Practice preventative security hygiene
  • Automate preventive and reactive workflows
  • Test security systems with exploit predictive modeling
  • Identify high-risk vulnerabilities in organizational context
  • Predict and mitigate risks before attackers exploit them with vulnerability intelligence 

Proactive teams after a breach

  • Make data-backed decisions
  • Allow automation to execute response plays 
  • Reduce incident response time and costs
  • Spend time analyzing rather than containing threats
  • Research and identify new threats to stay ahead of the game

To future-proof assets in treacherous times, taking a proactive stance holds firm because it: 

  • Manages risk. Proactive teams are always steps ahead of a crisis. By understanding the context of an organization’s assets, vulnerabilities can be prioritized for remediation by greatest true risk, unlike inflated and misinformed CVSS scores. Teams no longer exhaust themselves from chasing down threats as they occur. By focusing their efforts on mitigating risk, proactive teams drive down the risk cyberthreats pose to their business.
  • Predicts and reacts to events. Instead of always reacting to security breaches, top-tier vulnerability management solutions take the offense by leveraging context-backed risk intelligence, predictive modeling, and machine learning to predict incidents before they happen and execute automated responses so teams can focus on the vulnerabilities that matter.
  • Is context-rich. You can’t remediate everything—and you don’t have to either. When teams go risk-based, they’re able to focus efforts on prioritizing vulnerabilities that pose the greatest organizational risk. Modern vulnerability management platforms give the full picture from integrated applications and data feeds and the most efficient solutions offer data-backed insights to drive risk-prioritized decision-making. 

Prevention is better than treatment

Security has historically meant building up defenses against potential attackers. Now, it’s about building security resilience so you can protect every aspect of your business by anticipating what’s next, responding  quickly and confidently to changes and threats, and emerge from it all stronger than before.  

This is why so many organizations have opted to evolve their approach to threats with context and data-rich prediction to better manage risk and build resilience. Modern risk-based vulnerability management solutions help teams prioritize and predict only those risks that pose a threat to their business. Those organizations choosing a proactive strategy, because they know threat actors are plenty proactive, too.

To learn how your organization can make the switch from defense to offense with Kenna Security’s risk-based vulnerability management solution, schedule time to talk to one of our experts.

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